Fabulous local food and its friendly buzz make The Bay Tree a must-visit destination.
If Beatrix Potter had been alive and retired from writing children’s books, she would surely have moved to Holywood in Co Down to open and manage The Bay Tree restaurant. This terracotta-tiled, low-ceilinged and higgledy piggledy tea house- cum-restaurant is a perfectly charming tribute to country cottage living and Peter Rabbit and Mrs Tiggy-winkle would have been ecstatically happy living here.
Also, the cosy country cottage thing has been going that long at The Bay Tree that the twee décor has now acquired a patina of authentic-effect antiquity. The tiny archway entrance from the High Street, the little shop units that line the passage to the Bay Tree’s front door and the Q7s, X5s and Discoveries parked outside imbue the place with a sense of middle class — if a bit bourgeois — fortitude and unshakeably simple but good taste.
The middle classes have come under attack in recent years (most recently by the flag-bearing leader of the class himself, Jeremy Paxman, in an ill-judged attack on the arts and the need to subsidise them).
Yet here we are, the decent folk in our nice jumpers and frocks funding the whole show, paying our taxes, donating to charities, volunteering our services to various good causes, taking Charlotte to orchestra and horse-riding every weekend.
And all we ask in return is a quality latte and crumbly traybake once in a while in a country cottage that has benches outside, low beamed ceilings inside and pleasant personnel.
The Bay Tree is a bastion for the decent classes and inside you will find all generations of yummy mummies and retired folk and even Andrew Trimble and his girlfriend on this Friday lunchtime (a few hours later he would help Ulster demolish the Scarlets at Ravenhill).
And what sustenance is offered to those of us with impeccable taste and manners? Alarmingly, a choice that includes microwaved roadkill of the day on a bed of carpark dandelion served with tomato ketchup.
The penny drops eventually that this is Friday April 1, so I look further down: buckwheat pancake filled with ham and cheese served with apple and onion sauce and salad, pan-fried haddock with parsley butter, champ and salad, seared Co Down rib-eye steak on toasted ciabatta with horseradish crème fraiche and onion rings, warm salad of balsamic glazed chicken livers with bacon, roasted red onions and basil, and lots of others. Only the steak costs more than a tenner (£10.50).
All of these are hugely appealing and the choice is made with some difficulty. Joining me today is Jane, who likes the salads here, and, sure enough, The Bay Tree salad (choice of ham or chicken) is a leafy, munchy, moist mix full of surprises: passion fruit, cous cous, butternut squash, garden peas, mint. A quartered boiled egg might have provided just another colour and texture, but the salad was a joy to look at otherwise.
The pan-fried monkfish cheeks with a pea, bacon and lemon risotto served with leaf salad seduced me in the end. Monkfish, or poor man’s lobster, is one of the most profoundly ugly animals you’ll see in the market.
Looking a bit like a monster tadpole that has been dropped, cartoon-like, from a great height and flattened out, its cave-like mouth and head are bigger than the tail, where all the expensive (and lobster-like) meat is. But many monkfish lovers will eschew the tail for the head and the cheeks in particular, which are sweet, firm and incredibly tasty.
In this case, the four large cheeks were a real treat. Fried in butter, the solid but delicate morsels were like little fillets, slightly curled in the heat and resting now on a soft and generous bed of risotto. The arboreo rice was perfectly cooked with plenty of bacon and peas and a light creaminess, made all the lighter with the lemon.
The Bay Tree is famous for its traybakes and pastries and the apple pie with cinnamon ice cream was a fabulous wedge of crumbling short pastry with cool, slightly crunchy apple slices within, peppered with a little cinnamon.
The ice cream was simple, not too sweet, and a self-effacing accompaniment, there really to shine the spotlight on the pie. A little spoonful of red fruit compote enlivened the whole thing with its colour and tanginess.
Packed, busy and happy, the restaurant must be a nightmare to work in, what with all those bumpy floors, tight tables and spaces. Yet the service is smooth and attentive.
Just giving an unexpected edge to the Bay Tree, the woman who heads the service brilliantly is the opposite of a Beatrix Potter character. Unless you count the farmer. She is fast, knowledgeable and knows how to deal with this crowd all the while making herself almost invisible.
The Bay Tree is overlooked by those of us not in the know. But chef Sue Farmer is a super pro with great judgement and a very finely honed set of skills. It doesn’t often get as good as this.
Super salad £8.95
Apple tart £3.50
Ice cream £1.80
River Rock x 2 £3.30